Good design, bad design: what makes an object stand out from the crowd? How D&T teachers can help students identify the desirability factor in products

Paul Woodward
12th May 2017 at 13:01

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, Good design, bad design: what makes an object stand out from the crowd? How D&T teachers can help students identify the desirability factor in products

Ok, hands up if you have done this classic/ tiresome/ pointless/ exciting/ difficult/ awesome/ lesson at least once in your career. Student or teacher brings in a range of design objects which form the basis of a discussion about good and bad design. I know I have done it on many occasions with very different results.  There was a time when you could play it safe by bringing in some ergonomic appliance for the elderly and a tin of Spam with a key. It was a no brainer and even the weakest design students could understand how the humanitarian solution would trump something which unravelled using a set of pliers (if the key was missing) into something resembling razor wire just so you could get to the processed dog food inside.

There were biros and cheap can openers, the old Motorola brick mobiles and more extreme examples but I am sure you could add your own very long list. Whenever I let the students bring something in they would often forget and then simply pull out their smartphones and proceed to describe the feature like a salesperson. I almost gave up doing it at that point but then one day I was knocked sideways by an example a (talented) student brought in. I can't remember the product details all that well but I remember that (in my opinion) it was ugly and lacked commercial appeal yet it was incredibly functional and was commercially successful as a product. It was then that I realised that design, like music, art, fashion and food etc., is very subjective and that the criteria we use to define what is good and bad design may actually be more personal than professional.

Take for example a piece of classical music. From a teenagers point of view it's probably terrible and may be of limited commercial value to a record company yet lovers of music may believe it to be a work of art and one that has stood the test of time being played far more than the latest boy band. So, is good design defined by popularity and commercial success or the 'form' and appeal of the product?

What might be more constructive than a binary 'good and bad' would be to take something like the iPhone and look at the features that make it a good product in the eyes of the user. See if you can surprise your audience by looking at a different aspect from those they already know rather than defining it as 'good' by its commercial success or list of features and try to define what it is that makes it so appealing. Yes, perhaps Apple products are not the best example for that as they do elicit a certain 'sheep like' attitude to ownership simply because everyone has (or wants) one. Look at rivalry between manufacturers and the features that you think one may be surprised. And remember, if iPhones were that good first time round they wouldn't be preparing to launch the 11th iteration within 10 years.

Essentially you want to develop in your students the analytical and reasoning skills as part of the design process so they can understand and communicate visually, orally and in writing what they believe to be good design rather than being exposed to your opinions or blindly sucked in by the marketing blurb; after all they are the hungry consumers of new products and possibly the designers of the next generation.

They say that products, cars especially, used to have that X Factor; the 'X' being something you can't quite put your finger on but that you find attractive and desirable. I no longer use that phrase given how a rather dire TV show has made the term into a household brand. Oh, and I once described a product as being 'sexy' in class once. I hope they have stopped laughing by now; I won't be using that term again in a hurry.

If we take this aspect of personal taste from design it could be argued that good design could simply be in the product's ability to meet the criteria set down in the brief even if the final outcome is neither visually attractive nor a commercial success. I am sure that describes 90% of D&T projects anyway as that is the criteria we are programmed to follow by the examination boards. It's that rare other 10% that make the subject magical to teach and I only hope that you can experience it at sometime in your career; it used to bring a genuine smile to my face.

Perhaps 'good and bad design' have little relevance for this generation and would be better replaced with successful products and commercial failure or, at the very least, whether or not I 'want one of those'. Either way we need to ensure we are not imposing our own (possibly outdated) views of what is good and bad design and instead encourage students to develop their own.




Paul has taught a range of creative and technical subjects specialising in design and technology for 23 years in a range of schools, including stints as head of D&T and head of a creative arts faculty. He continues to work within D&T as a consultant but is currently taking a break from teaching to explore design in industry.